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Monday, Jan. 08, 2001

On the eve of the January 9 publication of Brad Meltzer's new novel, The First Counsel (Warner Books 2001), we bring you an interview with the author — who responded to a series of written questions posed by FindLaw columnist Julie Hilden.

Meltzer is a 1996 graduate of Columbia law school who now lives outside of Washington, D.C. Meltzer has previously published two legal thrillers, The Tenth Justice and Dead Even, both of which were New York Times bestsellers. (Full disclosure: Meltzer also reviewed "The Sopranos" for this website last season.) His new novel, The First Counsel centers on a young White House attorney who has just begun to date the President's charismatic but erratic daughter, Nora — and has no inkling of all the trouble he's in for.

Q: You became a thriller writer very early in your legal career, with The Tenth Justice, written while you were still in law school. If you had become a practicing lawyer, though, what type of law would you have chosen? And could you have been happy that way?

A: Back then, I was looking at a career in telecom or some other type of high-tech practice. Would I have been happy? I hope I'll never know. I'm not one of those self-hating lawyers – and when it comes down to it, the law still fascinates me on an intellectual level – but writing is what drives me. That's my passion – and no matter how exciting telecom is, it'll never thrill me like sitting down and writing the words "Chapter One…" Besides, law firms don't let you work in your underwear (casual day indeed).

Q: It's hard to imagine a faster-paced plot that The First Counsel's. In how much detail did you sketch out the plot beforehand? And, what was your initial concept of the book's basic plot — before all the detail was added?

A: When I started researching The First Counsel, the only idea I had in my head was that I wanted to write about a White House lawyer. I hadn't even thought about including the President's daughter until I was interviewing someone at the White House – which was where the idea of dating the first daughter actually came up.

Soon after, we came up with the actual plot: On a date, Michael and Nora see something they shouldn't, and the snowball starts rolling (straight at them) from there.

As far as how much I plot in advance, I know the "whos," "whys," and most of the "hows," but not all the tiny details. For example, I know that the book opens with Michael on a date with the President's daughter (and I know what they have to do for the next fifty to a hundred pages). But I have no idea where they're actually going on that date (Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan) until I sit down and actually write.

Q: One of my favorite things about the book was that it makes sense on a second read — when you already know all the twists that are to come. There were implausibilities that troubled me part-way through the first read — Why would the First Daughter, Nora, pick out our hero, in particular, to date, when he's the first to admit that he's not exactly the stud of the White House? Why is her behavior so erratic? And why, when she is so erratic, can she so effortlessly click on a public persona?

But by the end of the book, all these questions are answered, and answered well. My question for you is, did you usually know the question and answer all at once? For example, when you decided to make Nora erratic, did you also know what the cause would be?

A: In the case of Nora, I refused to start writing her as a character until I truly understood her. I didn't want to just plunk her down and say to the reader, "Okay, she's the President's daughter. Believe it." Instead, I tried to dig around the heads of other kids who have been in that extreme White House situation.

I read everything I could find about all the real First Kids, from Lincoln all the way up to Clinton. I spoke to a psychologist who specializes in the problems of kids with famous parents. And I eventually was able to interview an actual First Daughter.

In the end, when I sat down to write, I think I knew Nora better than I've known any other character at the beginning of a book. Did I know every last detail? Of course not. But I knew she couldn't be who she was unless she had some pretty good reasons (sorry to be vague; I don't want to ruin the ending). Once I started finding those reasons, Nora (as the cliché goes) just wrote herself.

I know you won't sell out the First Daughter who was kind enough to talk with you about her experience — though I'd love to know who she is. But can you tell me, based on what you learned from her, what it's like being a First Daughter? What can the Bush daughters, who so far have been kept out of the spotlight, expect? What's it like? Well, what would you do if – when you were in college – big burly men with dark sunglasses followed you everywhere? And came to all of your parties? And followed you around on your dates? And checked out every cute guy or girl you were talking to?

And then on top of that, every time you put on the TV, someone was talking about your parents? Or every time you and your friends flicked on Saturday Night Live, Will Ferrell was making your dad look like Cletus, the Slack-Jawed Yokel?

And as if that weren't enough, what would you do if every magazine in America spent their time critiquing what you wear, and how you do your hair, and whether stripes make you look fat or fatter? And that doesn't even include what the press does to your boyfriends or girlfriends…

How bad can it get? When LBJ was president, Luci Johnson's boyfriend developed an ulcer while dating her. Even for Chelsea, when she picked her first boyfriend at Stanford, the media scrutiny got so bad, the boyfriend's hometown had to issue a press release. Not his parents – not even him – his hometown!

Sure, there are benefits, but as Teddy Roosevelt said, "You don't live in the White House, you are only exhibit A to the country."

What do you think about the recent debate over whether Chelsea Clinton is now "fair game" for the press, particularly since she helped her mother's campaign for the Senate? So far, she has seemed to me to be one of the best-protected First Daughters in history; would you agree?

A: Chelsea's definitely one of the most well protected First Daughters in history, and in the process, the Clintons have redefined what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior from the press. Should it end because Chelsea turned twenty-one? Not a chance. Leave the poor girl alone.

Should it end because Chelsea decides to get involved with her Mom's campaign? That's a better question. The problem is, in the past, the press has had only two modes when it comes to First Kids: "On" and "Off." And when they were on, they were in full O.J.-mode.

Still, even if Chelsea had been helping on the campaign, I certainly don't think she's put herself out there as a public figure. She's not making speeches like Karenna Gore. She's not writing articles for Newsweek like George P. Bush. She's a daughter helping her Mom.

Is there a clean, bright-line rule that'll tell us when she becomes a true public figure? Not a chance. But so far, the press has been sensible. And even if the Washington Post declared her "Fair Game," almost no one else has been stupid enough to bite.

You met with a number of former White House counsels in researching your book. With whom did you meet, and what did you learn from them? Was it difficult to get access, or were the ex-counsels forthcoming?

A: All of them were completely approachable and extremely forthcoming – Jack Quinn and Lloyd Cutler (Clinton), Fred Fielding (Reagan), Len Garment (Nixon) – each had their own great war stories to share about their times as the lawyer to the Presidency.

Fred Fielding had a picture of himself and Reagan on Air Force One, with Reagan holding a bumper sticker that said, "My lawyer can beat up your lawyer." The moment I saw that, I put it right in the book.

In truth, though, war stories only get you so far. In person, what each of them had was this uncanny, unquantifiable ability to stay calm in a crisis. I really can't explain it, but it was just in the air. After years of talking and advising our Presidents, they're far more secure with themselves. They've lost the need to impress. And that's the confidence I tried to give to Edgar Simon in The First Counsel.

The book's command of the White House's physical plant impressed me; it certainly conveys that "you were there" feeling. How much of the description of the White House's physical layout (and that of the Old Executive Office Building) is accurate, and how did you research the minutiae? Was it as easy as simply getting a blueprint? I assume there's no "secret tunnel" — but what about other aspects?

I spent three years talking to former Secret Service agents, employees, and staffers. I wanted all the White House details to be accurate, from the hidden passageways, to the bowling alley, to the private movie theater.

The only thing I flubbed (on purpose) was where the Secret Service hide their guns. I moved that one about fifty feet or so. Sure, I got the blueprints to the White House, but the details came from the people who worked there.

Q: Your press kit asks some provocative questions, and promises you'll answer them. Okay, I'll bite:

1: Which First Son took a date into the Queen's Bedroom and tried to get her into bed by saying: "Prior to this night five Queens have slept in this bed. Tonight…a sixth?"

A: The winner for the cheesiest pick-up line ever in the White House: Steve Ford.

2: Which First Son actually managed to evade his Secret Service protection in New York's Central Park, only to have the bike stolen from him during the time he was alone?

A: JFK, Jr. — and when the Secret Service offered to go retrieve the bike, Jackie Kennedy told them not to, so JFK, Jr. would learn his lesson. How's that for good parenting?

3: Which First Daughter fell in love with, and married, a Secret Service agent?

A: Susan Ford

4: Which first daughter snuck out of the White House by ducking down in the backseat of a car?

A: This is one of the great old First Kid myths. Susan Ford is credited with the old duck-down-in-the-backseat trick, but in reality, she ran out of the White House, hopped in her Mustang, and before anyone could react, raced out at the exact same time the Secret Service opened the gates to let Betty Ford's car in. The Secret Service couldn't find her for over an hour. The next day, President Ford said he wanted to have a talk with his daughter.

Q: One of the themes of both The Tenth Justice and The First Counsel seems to me to be the difficulty of young people operating — largely without anyone "adult" to turn to — in Washington, D.C.'s shark pool. The Lewinsky scandal certainly illustrated the way in which less powerful government employees — both Lewinsky herself, and Linda Tripp — can intersect with very powerful ones, often to disastrous effect. Why has the younger world of political Washington, and the way it intersects with the older world of power, been so fascinating to you?

Does that mean young people run the city? Of course not. But there's a reason people say, "You're only as good as your staff."

As a writer, my goal is to take people into worlds they've never been. In The Tenth Justice, it's the Supreme Court; in Dead Even, it's the DA's Office; in The First Counsel, it's the most private parts of the White House. But as a researcher (which is where every book actually starts), my goal is find the one gear in the engine that – when you pull it out – makes the whole train instantly jackknife. In truth, that gear is often times (get ready for the pretentious, literary-sounding answer) the innocence and naivete of youth. I have it; I love it. That's it.

Julie Hilden, the interviewer, is a FindLaw columnist, attorney and author. Further information about The First Counsel can be found .

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